Saturday, June 30, 2012

All things must come to an end

It was a rainy, bittersweet day in June when I said goodbye to my last class of students.  We spent our final class time together discussing fun ways to continue learning English, from funny movies to BBC webpages and songs featuring Rihanna.  After giving them my final reminders to be confident about their English and to not be afraid to talk to foreigners we went outside to take group photos.  The mood was quiet and sad.  I gave them my contact email and we finally said goodbye. 

The same went with my Chinese friends who I similarly said goodbye to that night.  “How quickly things come to an end,” I said.  They included my site mate Chris, our Japanese teacher friend Ai and our Chinese colleagues and friends Rachel, Wen Xiaomei, Fisher, Hunter and King (some of whom went by their English names).  I can’t imagine my life without them now.  It will seem strange. 
Saying goodbye to students

My final Peace Corps act was a Close  Of Service (COS) meeting with the leaders of the Peace Corps departments in Chengdu- admin., the program manager and the director.  Then it was over.  A whole two years over in the blink of an eye.  I have to say it went by quickly.  But I had a great time and I learned so much about my students, who God bless them have had more difficulties in their life than I can believe, about myself and about a foreign culture and language.  I think, though, that what I gained most was friends and a plethora of different viewpoints about the world.  How different the world can look from perspectives other than those I grew up with, it always mesmerizes me.

I’m sure I will look back on these experiences with happiness, and easily forget about the frustrations and difficulties of living abroad, of which there were a few.  But that is the same with living anywhere I suppose.

Now I am ready to come back.  It’s certainly time for that.

In front of a church and next to the Nacional Museo del Prada
But first…why not travel a bit more?

I thought so too, so now I am in Madrid, Spain, trying not to lose myself in the culture shock of flamingo dancing, tapas and coffee.  Oh how happy I am to finally see coffee again!!!  And it’s real, too!

When I return at the end of July I will have traveled to the UK as well, to visit friends I made while travelling across China.  If you are sitting back thinking about how much you wish you were here I wouldn’t blame you.  But in my defense I needed this trip to slowly transition back to western life.  And what better way to transition than to enjoy 3pm lunches and 11pm dinners? 
Parque De El Retiro

On a side note, Katie and I will live together in D.C. once we return, very exciting.  She and I will be attending graduate school in the area- she at Univ. of Maryland (most likely) and me at Johns Hopkins.  And although I will be very busy starting in September I hope that I can have time to travel around and see all you friends again. 

Stay tuned for my summary of life/politics and culture in China.  I have so much to say that I left out while still maintaining an apolitical volunteer lifestyle so strictly enforced in Peace Corps, for obvious reasons.  Much needs to be said and so I will divulge that information in the very near future here on my blog.

I miss you all, but will hopefully see you soon!!

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Low Down

So what exactly is going on in Yibin?  Quite a lot actually, but I'll spare you the details.  For one, I'm now in my last semester and due to arrive back in the US of A in late July.  And although I have loved my experiences here, I think I'm ready to return.  In terms of what I will do, well I guess that is still the 1 million dollar question.  But I do have a plan, albeit a rough one.  Grad school is part of that plan, though it will be part-time and likely in something like Public Management, and applications have been sent in for various jobs in D.C.  And alongside all that will be my continuing goal of becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), a dream slowly but surely becoming a reality.  Already I have passed the State department Chinese language assessment (yay!), and I have had the chance to get great advice from current FSOs and others, like me, who are still in the trial phase.

On the China front things have been going smoothly.  Teaching has gotten loads easier due to all the help and tips from our PC community.  And since my students have pretty good English I spend most of the time getting them to practice using it (a surprisingly rare practice here).  We do games, critical thinking activities and yes, on occasion random cross-cultural activities like song and dance.  Last week my students went crazy when I taught them the Macarena, proving once more that the most cliche activities in the U.S. can be golden teaching material here in China.  

I've also started a cooking club for students to come cook at my apartment.  The students get the chance to practice English and I get to learn how to make Sichuan dishes, so its a great trade off.  And several times a week I will teach younger kids from around the city.  Its a great feeling as most of them have never had the chance to meet a foreigner and are grateful for the chance to improve their English at such a young age (usually 4-10 ! yrs old).  Also, they are extremely funny so I don't mind the extra workload.

Other developments since my last entry?  Well Spring is finally here so I can finally feel my ligaments again and my father will be visiting in just 2 weeks!  In addition, I recently participated in a marathon (though only part)  in Chongqing, a major metropolitan city not far from my site. We even made it on the news while saying "we love Chongqing" for some city ads!

 And Katie and I are still going strong!  

Spring Hello!

Well after untold amounts of procrastination I finally made it back to my blog, here again to regal you with all the incredible adventures I have experienced since you last heard from me.  

OK so maybe nothing that enormously exciting has happened recently, but I certainly have had lots of great experiences in the last few months.  First off, I had a great time when my mother, sister Rose and her fiance Ryan came to visit.  After traveling for a week from one Sichuan landmark to the next we had seen a lot- including my apartment and several of my Chinese friends at a Chinese style banquet!


Thanks for coming guys!!  I had a great time.


And then, if that wasn't enough, another visitor arrived...
Eric you survived two weeks of raucous adventurism, I'm proud of you!
Thanks for the visit, hope you had a good time!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Summer Project in Dazhou

The new semester is about to begin and along with it are several strange new happenings- the arrival of my second year in Peace Corps, an array of new Chinese students waiting to learn from my very finite wisdom and the arrival of this year's new PC volunteers.

I don't know how this first year passed by so quickly. It seems like such a short time ago that I was delightedly leaving my Chinese host family to arrive at my new apartment in an unfamiliar city. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and St. Patrick's Day all passed and getting ready to start again all over with crazy Chinese characteristics, I can't imagine how they will look this year.

Aside from the summer language program there were a few very interesting events which I was lucky to take part in over this summer holiday. In particular, I want to discuss my experience at this year's Summer Project.

Each summer, all first year Peace Corps volunteers participate in a two week teacher training project in one of several cities in their province. In Sichuan, where I am located, volunteers worked in four different cities-Leshan, Chengdu, Neijiang and Dazhou. I was in Dazhou with five other volunteers including Katie D. and several other volunteer friends of mine.

As coordinator of the project I was charged with working out the logistics for the volunteers joining me at the teaching site. My goals included working out the living arrangements and some other technical details, but also assessing the needs of our students. After meeting with the faculty in Dazhou, I discovered that we had our hands full- over 300 rural teachers were expecting us, each hoping that they might improve their English as well as learn western teaching methods.

We were quite excited, mostly because few of us had had the opportunity to teach teachers from rural areas, it being forbidden in China during the regular school year. And the opportunity to talk to teachers from smaller rural schools has a great appeal to many of us volunteers.

The opportunity was surely going to be a rich experience. After we arrived we had a brief opening ceremony, where the school officials greeted all the project's participants. The president of the school, the mayor, the foreign affairs department and me rather awkwardly in the corner, all got the opportunity to address the rural teachers. As usual everything looked very formal for the opening and all the speakers took their time talking about how great the program would be. As it got to my turn I spoke briefly about how excited we were to meet the new teachers and how I hoped the teachers would be comfortable talking to us, as we knew some of them were rather shy. Then I introduced all the others in our group- Katie D., Warren, Joel, Aaron and Tamarae, all of whom had very interesting backgrounds.

Though we had not all come with an education degree, we each had plenty of experiences teaching. Katie and Aaron probably had the most teaching experience of all of us; Katie having a degree in education from Florida State and years of English teaching experience, and Aaron with a Masters from the same university but in Literature. The rest of us had various interests and degrees, Joel in politics, Warren in grassroots activism as well as Japanese, and Tamarae in public policy. A random mishmash, yes, but most Peace Corps volunteers come from all walks of life, as they should.

Our first week went great. Each of us had about fifty to sixty students and a decent classroom.  The classes included, thankfully, an air-conditioner and also computers with a projector. Not something you would expect to find in a smaller Chinese city but we were fortunate enough to have the resources we needed to teach large groups of students. Our topics were geared toward teachers who had been teaching students around high school age or younger, and consisted mostly of language learning activities, games, teaching methods, learning topics, rules for the classroom, methods for getting students involved and common mistakes in English. Not all of the teachers were enthused with our teaching ideas, but the reasoning was understandable. As it turned out some of the teachers had been told it was mandatory to go, even though they might not have any English ability. Also, some of them seemed to think we would be teaching them how to speak English, which for a two week program is virtually impossible. Our main goal, of course, was to help them with teaching English, as they were teachers already.  Luckily there were also may teachers at the program who were there of their own free will and who were very happy to learn from us. We tended to focus on helping those who wanted to learn, and giving them as much helpful teaching tips as we could.

Another difficulty we encountered, and not for the first time, was the rigid education methods in China. Not a few teachers confronted us with how they were going to use our methods in a high school classroom that stressed methodical learning styles. For those of you who are teachers and are reading this, you might feel mixtures of shock and incredulity at the system of education I am going to describe to you. I should perhaps start by emphasizing that one thing is done very well here, and that is keeping things the same. If you were to walk into a Chinese classroom now or one hundred years ago the only thing you might find different would be the dress code. And by that I mean what I have mentioned in my previous blog posts, that Chinese students are trained strictly for test taking. Nothing else. If you have an idea that strays from what the mainstream intellectuals deem helpful in learning, you are likely to be thought of us as unrealistic and/or a bad teacher in China. This has several harmful effects- 1. Students don't learn how to enjoy learning, many cannot fathom why learning would be a "fun" or an "enjoyable" activity. 2. If you are seen reading as a teacher, you might be looked upon as being "overly ambitious," because, as we all know, reading is only done for improving one's status in life (cough cough). and 3. No teacher has even the slightest interest in doing anything but reading out of the textbook in the classroom, which is deemed by most teachers and students infallible. That's not fair, sometimes the teacher sings.

But anyway, I could say more but I won't can probably guess. But that was a small frustration in our classroom for several of our student teacher, as it should be. The only response we could give, however, is that trying new methods once in a while certainly would not hurt.

Basketball Tournament

Many of them listened, some didn't, and that was fine. In the end the program was a considerable success. Many of the teachers left with a library of lesson plans, PowerPoint presentations, activity ideas, songs and much more. In addition, we had the opportunity to join in plenty of outside the classroom activities as well. We had ping pong and basketball tournament, banquets, a BBQ and even a trip to a local water park (definitely not common).

The program ended as it began, with a large banquet, which the Chinese love. They had many types of food and there was plenty of gan bei'ing (chinese toasting with beer or liquor), and one last chance to say goodbye to all our student teachers.

My class along with the other volunteers in the front row-
from left, Katie D., me, Aaron, Warren, Joel, Tamarae

A great time, and afterwards Katie and I left for our language program in Lijiang, which I mentioned in my last post. Afterwards, I was able to attend the swearing in ceremony for the new Peace Corps volunteers, which happened to coincide with the visit of two very influential people. The first, Vice President Joe Biden, gave a speech at Sichuan University to Chinese students, some high level Chinese officials and the new Peace Corps volunteers. Afterwards, on the day of the new volunteer swear-in, the new US ambassador to China, Gary Locke, was also in attendance. I was somehow able to squeeze my way into both, and had the privilege of shaking both their hands, which was awesome.
Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech at Sichuan University

Unfortunately I did not get the chance to tell Mr. Biden that, like him, I had family from Scranton. But maybe someday I'll get the chance.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lijiang 丽江

"Are we still in China?' Katie was looking back and forth between me and the outside view, the passenger bus seemed to speed by each miraculous site with little more than the flash of an eye, "it really doesn't feel like it!" she continued, clearly pleased.

I couldn't help but agree. On either side of us snow peaked mountains towered in the distance, their pinnacle obstructed by clouds. The closer hills were no less breathtaking. Each was covered with seemingly carefree sheep herders, the only source of traffic on route to our final destination in Yunnan, China.

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. In all, we had spent 16 hours sitting on one bus after another, but it was worth it. Yunnan is arguably the nicest part of China, owing to its remarkable climate that remains warm nearly year round. It also boasts over 50 different ethnic groups with connections to nearly all the South East Asian countries nearby. As we raced by rice terraced fields hundreds of tan faced minorities could be seen working away, their legs half submerged in rice paddies and their backs turned against the heat of the mid-day sun.

We eventually arrived in Lijiang, one of Yunnan's more touristy destinations. Nonetheless it is beautiful. Our plan was to spend two weeks furthering our Chinese language studies. We had chosen this program both for its location and its cost, which was reasonable. Doing a language program was also reimbursed by Peace Corps as part of our mid-service training.

Lijiangs "Old Town" is referred to as the Venice of the east, but I wouldn't go so far as that. At the north side of the city is 黑龙谭 or Black Dragon Pool, which drains into hundreds of streams stretching down the cobbled streets of the older section of the city. The area of the town is relatively vast, containing hundreds and hundreds of traditional Chinese buildings; black, slate roofed buildings which slope at the corners and are built nearly entirely of wood. The city was partially rebuilt in 1996 after a devastating earthquake killed nearly 300 inhabitants. The traditional "old town" of Lijiang was up to that point untouched by tourism, but in the aftermath of the quake Lijiang's local officials reformed the old town into a traveller friendly destination. Today, most Chinese are well familiar with Lijiang, it being one of the prime destinations throughout China and by a large margin the most popular in Yunnan.

But don't expect it to be quiet or the streets to be free of tacky souvenirs. For that you had better go to Dali, a city not far from Lijiang with similar attractions and fewer tourist traps. I preferred Dali but Lijiang was better suited to our training needs.

Our days in Lijiang were rich, in the mornings we spent 4 to 5 hours studying Chinese, in the afternoons we went over our studies in the local cafes or took a bike ride outside the city. There were six of us- including Katie D. and our friends Richie and Katie A., the same couple who accompanied Katie D. and I on our trip to Vietnam earlier this year. The weather was not always nice, however, as it was rainy season in southern China at the time.

During the afternoons I usually peered down from a second floor cafe at older local residents all clad in blue. They were Naxi people, the main nationality in that part of Yunnan. The traditional clothing for woman is blue blouses, pants and cap, while the men are simply clothed in blue trousers, white shirt and blue hats. The matriarchal society had existed in that part of China for over 1500 years. Due to its location, the city, and in fact the entire province, had been loosely controlled either independently or by the Chinese, depending on the time period. In fact until the last two centuries the province of Yunnan had been little more than an afterthought in the Chinese imperial court, its only use being along its trade route to SE Asia. At times the province also proved useful for disposing unpopular officials. Had the Chinese court officials truly known the beauty of Yunnan they might have chosen a better place of exile, but instead the province was often ignored and looked upon as a jungle of barbarian tribes. I reflected on what the exiled officials must have thought when they arrived in this part of China, with towering mountains, cool climates and, to remarkably beautiful women, the region must have seemed like a paradise.

I also reflected on the areas past. In 1933 a writer named James Hilton visited this area of China and wrote about it in his fictional novel Lost Horizon. From then on the city of Shangri-La inflamed the imagination of western readers, leading them to believe this area of China contained a paradise of near-immortal inhabitants. I found a copy of the book on stands all over Lijiang city. It was now printed by a provincially owned publisher to increase tourism. I was not particularly enthused with the idea of using the book as another way to lure tourists, but since western, English language books are very rarely printed at all in China I decided to buy a copy for my school library. If you get the chance, you may enjoy reading it as well.

We finished our trip at a hostel in the center city, not far from our language training center which was farther toward the outskirts. There we found travellers from all over the world-U.S., Korea, Japan, Ireland and other parts of Europe. We ate our dinner in the courtyard surrounded by the sounds of excited travelers. A Naxi boy who worked as a waiter stopped to chat at our table. We gave him an English name, which he loved, and gave him an English poem he could give to his next girlfriend (he was even more happy with the poem, and took every opportunity to use it on girls around our table).

At night the city was lit by red lanterns, and our hostel was no different. Before falling asleep in our four person dorm room, we took our time listening to the sounds of Lijiangs old town ceaseless bustling before our long journey home to Sichuan.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

20 Questions

Recently I have wondered if all of the questions posed to me by family and friends would be much better answered by making a list. Below are the most common questions that I have heard, I hope it will aid you in understanding my service here.

20 Questions
What is the most challenging aspect of life in China?

There are several challenges, as a teacher I would say I am most frustrated by student's apathy towards education. From an early age Chinese students are under a great amount of pressure to perform well. By the time they reach college, however, they seem to associate all areas of study with dry, monotonous preparations for major tests, and not with anything resembling their interests in life. Thus many of the students will choose not to expand their knowledge beyond the bare necessities.
This has been an unfortunate reality for me, as I along with many of my peer volunteers have tried to embrace a more active learning style. Though some students are eager to try something new, others find it is not of any immediate use to them and will choose not to participate.

2. How much of your time is spent preparing for and teaching classes?
Each week I have about 14 hours of class time. Plus prep time, which is about half of that. Also I have office hours (4 hours a week), when students can come chat with us outside of class, and several hours are devoted to the weekly school activities.
I spend the rest of my time studying Chinese and catching up on studies for grad school.

3. What is your relationship with other teachers and faculty?
Although Chris and I have a good relationship with the faculty, especially the office which handles our affairs, we do not often encounter other teachers. Many of them spend few hours at the university after teaching and/or are not willing to speak with us for fear that their English is not good enough. This is another frustration, as neither Chris nor I care in the slightest about their level of English.

4. What are the students like?
Students are exceptionally obedient and hardworking. Though many seem unenthusiastic about learning, they are nonetheless eager to succeed. According to custom, Chinese teachers are looked upon with great respect. For this reason, students have impressed me with their politeness.

5. Where do your students come from?
Most come from farmer or worker families around Sichuan. However, there are the occasional few who come from far eastern provinces such as Zhejiang, Hunan, Jiangxi, etc.

6. What kind of career choices do your students choose?
Many of my English major students will become teachers, though few have ambitions to do so. Several have expressed interest in office work or various business positions. Most also want to go abroad, despite the difficulties.

7. How does Yibin University rank against other schools in China?
The school is not well known nationally, but compared with other schools in Sichuan it is not so bad. Many of the students will tell you that they are there because they did poorly on their 高考Gao Kao (college entrance exam). I would have to say, though, that the school is developing quickly and is already nicer than many of the other universities I have seen outside Chengdu.

8. How does the school rate students?
As with all schools in China, the educational training (for English, anyway) is solely in preparation for the next test. My students will take two major national English examinations. If they fail the tests, they fail the school.

9. What does the average volunteer do with their free time?
Study Chinese, go bike-riding, read, hold student club meetings for movies, running, reading, etc., explore China, learn Tai-Qi, go out and meet Chinese friends and/or play mahjong.

10. Do you have Chinese friends? If so, do you hang out with them during your free time?
Yes and yes. My Chinese tutor and I are good friends, as well as some of the other teachers and local residents that I have met. On the weekends I will invite them to a movie or we will go out to dinner. Luckily my Chinese friends and I can speak comfortably in either English or Chinese so communication is easy. On occasion we will also go to KTV (karaoke, hugely popular in China), but I loathe singing and tend to avoid it.

11. What sort of cultural differences exist between you and your Chinese friends?
So many, but not as many as you might think. Depending on who you speak with the cultural differences can be large to insignificant. For example, my tutor is familiar with many western habits and humor and so is easier to speak with. However, when speaking with my students I often feel a disconnect, usually because many of them remind me of teenage girls obsessing over High School Musical.
Similarly, many Chinese have different ways of enjoying themselves. They tend to favor large dinner celebrations with great amounts of drinking, going out to do Tai Qi or playing mahjong. Also, as I have mentioned, most love KTV.

12. Do you often have the opportunity to travel?
We do not often have the opportunity for long-distance travel, except for the summer and winter holidays. During the year, however, there are many local sites I will visit around Yibin. Also, I try to visit other volunteer sites as often as I can.

13. What do you eat? Can you find western food?
There are many varieties of Chinese food here which I can eat. If I am with a group we will get shared dishes. At that time we will get such dishes as Kung Pao chicken (much different than its counterpart in the U.S.-spicy, not sweet), twice-cooked meat (a pork dish), fried egg and tomato, meat and potato, spicy tofu, fried cabbage or spinache and several others. If I am alone I will probably get fried rice with beef. Or jiao zi (a kind of dumpling), noodles, etc.
Surprisingly if you go downtown there is a KFC, but I don't go there unless I am really craving western food.

14. What are the biggest frustrations of life in China?
As any foreigner living in China knows, it is common to be stared at or taunted while walking down the street. Nearly everywhere you go a foreigner can expected to be called a "lao wai," or old foreigner. This can get real old real quick, and along with the sense that everyone is staring at you is probably the most frustrating thing to encounter. Many volunteers have complained of Chinese talking about them loudly and openly even while they are standing in clear view. The problem tends to arise from the belief that all foreigners do not speak even basic Chinese, which is rarely true of long term residents. Also, many Chinese in cities like Yibin have never seen a foreigner, so will on occassion walk right up to you and simply stare, creating a frustrating atmosphere. In the end, the more Chinese language you know the more likely you are to notice others talking about you. For this reason, I always carry my trusty iPod.

15. Are there traces of rural China in Yibin?
Yes. Even in a city as large as Yibin, there are still farmers on the streets. Usually they come to sell street food or goods on their own. I find them to be the most down to earth and interesting. The real weathered and dirty ones still walk around with a pipe in their mouth and some sort of banana stand behind them. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to communicate with them, owing to their extremely thick accent and rare knowledge of standard Mandarin.
When I try, however ,they are very nice.

16. Are you questioned about American policies?
Whether in class or on a bus I will occasionally be called upon to explain American policies. In the classroom I am forbidden to speak about politics, but outside I can usually answer questions without causing too much of a stir. The more objective your answers the better. If the students ask a specific question, try to stick to the point and not defend western value systems with idealogical arguments. The more objective your answer, the better.
Surprisingly, Chris and I can expect to be barraged with questions immediately following an event, including but not limited to the Giffords' shooting, Libyan air strikes or Obama's campaign strategy.

17. How many volunteers have left prematurely in your group?
Several have left due to health problems, family emergencies or frustrations. I do not know the exact number but I would assume it is roughly 15-17 of the original 90 or so.

18. How often does Peace Corps get involved with life at host site?
We are visited by our program manager, who oversees most of our site concerns, about once or twice during service. Also, we are visited by a medical officer to check on our health safety at site at least once. Other than that Peace Corps does not usually visit again unless there are special circumstances.

19. What can you tell me about Yibin? For example, is it famous for anything?
Yibin is well known for being the first city on the Yangtze river. Although the Yangtze technically flows farther west into Tibet, Yibin has historically been the last stop for ship traders.
If you have ever read the book Wild Swans you will know that the author, Jung Qiang, is from Yibin. She is also famous for several other books as well. The former primier of China, Li Peng, is also a former local of Yibin.
Close to Yibin is the largest area in China of bamboo forestry, called the bamboo sea. It is famous now throughout China and is the same bamboo site seen in the movie "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon."
Lastly, Yibin is quite famous throughout China for it's liquor company Wu Liang Ye.

20. What is the best part about living in China?
I have enjoyed living in China since college. The opportunity to improve my language abilities, expand cross-cultural understanding and discover new areas of the world continues to excite me.
I value all of the time I have spent in China thus far. In terms of service, Peace Corps China volunteers are fortunate to have a more strict and identifiable schedule, allowing us a more tangible pride in our work.